There I was in the very wilderness where, by tradition, Jesus had been tempted by the devil. It was arid, it was isolated, it was frightening in so many ways. And there I was sitting in that wilderness on top of a camel. We were at a significant elevation on a steep hillside, and the pathway was oh so very narrow. The verse of Scripture that we heard on this first Sunday of Lent kept going through my mind, "God will command his angels concerning you to protect you… On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone." Luckily, that proved not to be necessary. The camel got me safely down the little mountain to the Bedouin tent and the waiting supper.
Every First Sunday of Lent, the Christian lectionary takes us into this wilderness and narrates the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil. There are similarities among all three of the Gospel narratives offered up in the three-year cycle of lessons. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story in different ways and from different perspectives, but all of them suggest that Jesus experienced testing and temptation as a part of his spiritual experience and preparation for mission and ministry.
This year we encounter Luke's particular spin on the story. His unique take begins with the introductory words of the passage, "After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted." Jesus had been filled, brimful to overflowing, with the Spirit at his baptism. But the Spirit is not finished with him by any means. This same Spirit leads him into the wilderness. Actually, the Greek word translated in the text as "lead" might better be translated as "hurled, threw, impelled, directed." It's not a blithe spiritual expedition here. It is the very Spirit of God throwing Jesus into the physical wilderness and, even more so, hurling him into the wilderness of his own soul, his own call, his own identity.
In hearing this story, it's possible to get stuck in the details. You know, who is the devil? Does Satan really exist? Or we become obsessed with the details of the temptations themselves…worrying that we will get caught in our own hungers or our desire for wealth and power or our own human pride (all of which are legitimate concerns to be sure). But I don't think that any of this is really the primary point of the story. Rather, the point is this. Jesus chooses God. And as Jesus chooses God, he also chooses his own call, his own mission, his own pathway of service and compassion.
Truth is, Jesus could have been terribly distracted by the things offered to him. He could have been distracted because he was hungry after fasting for 40 days. And who would not want dignity, respect, empowerment, safety and security (which are really what the other temptations offer)? But, no, he doesn't get stuck, distracted, paralyzed by these tantalizing offers. Rather, he rests in the Spirit of God that led and threw him into this place and experience to begin with. And, still, brimful to overflowing with that Spirit, he chooses God; and he chooses to move ahead in his call and mission.
Luke, the Gospel-writer, continues to tell the story of Jesus' call and mission. The Spirit hurls Jesus into the wilderness. The temptations occur. Jesus chooses his call and mission. The devil goes away, "biding his time," as one translation puts it. Luke continues, "Then, Jesus armed with the power of the Spirit returned to Galilee."
He returns to his hometown but with clarity about his mission and purpose. Jesus attends the synagogue there, opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reads these words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me. He has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the Lord's favor." Then Jesus rolls up the scroll and says to the assembled worshippers, "Today, today, in your very hearing this text has come true."
There it is, there it is: Jesus comes out of the wilderness, out of his temptations, filled and armed with the Spirit. He proceeds to embrace his mission and be embraced by it. And that mission is clear in its purpose and focus: good news proclaimed, restoration and release, reconciliation and renewal. Jesus embraces and is embraced by his mission. He breathes it. He lives it through preaching, teaching, healing and welcoming the outcast and poor. He shows it finally in his willingness to offer himself on the cross as an action of love poured out for all.
In his experience in the wilderness, Jesus does not become distracted by the things that the tempter tries to offer him. No, he keeps his eyes on the prize. He rests in the Spirit of God and refuses the power, security, and satiation that could keep him temporarily satisfied while deterring him from his real purpose in life. The Spirit of God gets hold of him, guides him, directs him, fortifies and strengthens him, and Jesus embarks on his mission of life and love from that moment on. Jesus chooses God. Jesus chooses his mission and call.
The same choice confronts individual people of faith and the whole Christian Church itself. Will we choose God? Will we embrace our call and be embraced by it? Will we hear and listen to God's Spirit at work in us?
The truth of the matter is that God's Spirit is at work in our lives, sustaining, guiding, directing, inspiring and strengthening us. And the truth is that God is calling us to God's love and to a specific purpose for our own living. Will we choose God? Will we choose our own call and mission to live in the love of God? There are distractions and temptations all around us to be sure, things that would "draw us from the love of God,: as the promises of our baptism put it.
But the primary question before us remains: Will we choose God, and, in choosing God, will we listen to and follow the call that God is giving to us? There are lots of ways to live out this call and choice -- in our families, in daily life, in friendships, in the workplace. But the point is this: We are called, we have a mission, a purpose because God loves us, is present with us, and guides us in our lives. And the question is this: Will we choose it? Will we choose the love? Will we choose God?
It is the same question for us as the community of God's people. Will we choose our mission, our call, our purpose to restore, renew and reconcile or will we become distracted by other things? Yes, there is a lot that can draw God's people away from primary call and purpose. Distraction is all around us as Christians fall prey to the temptation to fight over disagreements or interpretations or perceptions on issues. But this is not the call or the purpose of the Christian church.
The purpose of God's church is mission; the call is restoration, renewal, and reconciliation. We are the ones called to proclaim good news, manifest release, and show forth the saving, restoring, redeeming love of God to all people everywhere. That is the mission of God's people. And the question is: Will we embrace it and will we be embraced by it?
In a recent extensive survey of Christian congregations throughout the United States, three statements were indicative of strong and growing local communities of faith:
* Our congregation is spiritually vital and alive.
* Our congregation helps members deepen their relationships with God.
* We have a clear sense of mission and purpose.
You see, congregations that show forth God's saving love, that connect people with God's love, and that are communities of transformation are vital and alive. Congregations that possess clarity about their mission, have chosen their mission and are mission-focused thrive and grow. They are not distracted or tempted to look elsewhere. They know their identity and purpose, and they live into it.
God's Holy Spirit is with us. God's own Spirit leads, directs, guides, strengthens and renews us as individual believers and as communities of faith. Sometimes God's Spirit hurls us into the places where we did not expect to go, but always, always, that same Spirit is with us.
What will we choose this day? Whom will we choose this day? God's saving love and power is all around us. God is calling us to God's own love and service in our own lives and in the communities of faith where we pray, learn, and serve. What will we choose? Whom will we choose? Do not be distracted. Do not turn away. Do not be tempted. Choose God, choose God's love, choose God's mission and call for your life. You will be blessed.
Blessed God, whose Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, where he chose his mission and your love, give us that same Spirit to lead us, to guide us, to inspire us in our journey. We ask that we might choose you, your mission, and your love in our lives and in our communities of faith. Keep us from distraction. Root us in your compassion. And guide us day by day to the final destination which is your abundant and everlasting love. Amen.